No Self is an Island
“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” ~John Donne
“For eternally and always there is only now, one and the same now; the present is the only thing that has no end.” ~Erwin Schrodinger
Whether we like to admit it or not, we need other people. Other people in our lives help to teach us about who we are. Their actions and attitudes are like a mirror that reflects to us not only aspects of human behaviour but also facets of our social conditioning.
It is said that our most dominant feature as humans, and similarly our most ignored facet, is that when we are speaking about other people, or things, we are actually speaking about ourselves. Because of this blindness we actually need other people in order to project ourselves onto them. And then perhaps in some moment of clarity we will gain the insight that our descriptions of others are in fact descriptions of ourselves. It is through our social environment and connections that a light may eventually shine back at us.
As it is, many of us are only dimly aware of the extent of our own social conditioning. We perhaps do not fully realize how the language, images, and terms of reference that frame the culture we were born into also influence to a large degree our own thinking patterns and emotional responses. In other words, our thoughts and opinions are not entirely our own, despite what we like to tell ourselves. We live within a world of ‘borrowings.’ That is, much of what we think about and who we think we are is borrowed from some other place. We take on opinions and ideas that are not our own, and then we make them our own by investing our attention onto them. Like a building we construct ourselves brick by brick, each one placed upon us one after the other. Our psychological world is this ‘artificial’ edifice that we have constructed by the throwaway things of the world. And by placing our personality over our construction – like a membrane – we call it our Self. After all, the word personality comes from ‘persona’ which is derived from Latin, where it originally referred to a theatrical mask. With this mask we have formed our ‘theatrical character’ from our attachments to external things. Our physical presence in this world is not some isolated island; we are all bridges to one another built from the pebbles and stones of the material world. And it is through this body that we navigate our manifested reality. Our physicality is ‘of this world’ and from its materials we are made. We thus participate in the density of the world; and it is from this situation that difficulties arise. We forget that there is a separation – or rather, difference – between our social self, and our inner Self. And in this respect, we hardly know our own minds.
We develop our own narratives of how we are independent entities, free to make our own decisions and choices based on our ‘own mind.’ Our societies tell us that we are free individuals to make our own choices, and yet at the same time they make the person an inseparable part of society by conditioning. Within the same breath they command us to be free whilst commanding us to conform. And this dual bind, or contradictory state, creates not only a psychological confusion but also an illusionary sense of self. We are taught that we are responsible as free agents whilst simultaneously we are managed through social processes. The truth of the matter may be something more distinct – that we have a unique sense of self with a degree of autonomy whilst at the same time being intrinsically interconnected to every other living thing. We are in a grand communion – no self is an island. Or, as Alan Watts once said, ‘The universe implies the organism, and each single organism implies the universe.’
Each one of us is the universe looking back at itself. We can go further and say that the cosmos is looking through us and we are at the same time looking through the cosmos. It is only when we spend all our time and efforts describing the exterior that we lose this perspective. It is like the tale of the little boy who caught a fly, dissected it, and then wondered where the fly had disappeared to. We have trained ourselves to observe and ‘to know’ through separateness rather than wholeness. We observe space and we ‘see’ emptiness – we do not perceive the energy that enfolds everything and from which matter emerges. It is the same as seeing the ocean waves approach by their crest and troughs, by their rise and fall, and yet we miss out on seeing the ocean. We see only that which we train ourselves to see. Rather than seeking to adapt our senses to new environments we prefer to fix our senses so that they perceive only the familiar and that which we already know. In this way, we reinforce our ‘knowns’ whilst blocking out any anomalies that may disturb this security. Security is stability, and too many unknowns bring discomfort. We are anxious over that which we do not know; not realizing that our futures depend upon us seeking and exploring these current unknowns. We tend to live our lives filled with paradox and contradictions.
Many of the contradictions that fill our lives are secondary phenomenon that keep the game of life in play. The dualisms and the distinctions – such as good and bad, and I’m right but you are wrong – are not essentials (although we often mistake them to be). The world is full of angels and devils (to use a worn analogy), and where the angels are winning but have not won and the devils are losing but have not lost. And so the constant interplay keeps the game active and dynamic, and not static. Our reality is similar to this, filled with secondary phenomenon that keeps the ball rolling and everything in movement. Yet we seem to often lose ourselves by becoming attached only to these secondary aspects and missing the unity that underlies all. When we adhere to definitions, or describe and label things, then we are already creating a boundary. By labelling we are creating categories and comparisons that by their nature limits us. True things are beyond such defining categorizations; they exist in the in-between spaces, in the gaps where everything is unseen. No wonder so many sages and prophets spoke in parables and riddles. It is the most useful mechanism to deliver the unspeakable.
It is the focus upon the secondary phenomenon that can create the emotional response of boredom. Those people who claim to get bored in life may also claim to find nothing exceptional or fascinating in the human condition. Or, to put it another way, the fact that they are a human being alive at this particular time, within a vast, intelligent cosmos has never astonished them. There is something incomplete in this lack of awe; a lack of sensitive awareness. We may ask ourselves, how can a truly sensitive person not be without metaphysical wonder or the urge to ask fundamental questions about our existence?
How can we not realize that we are living in truly remarkable times, with all the disruption and opportunity that this involves.
A New Horizon
A new time horizon is coming into being for us on this planet and with it comes different perspectives. We have already begun to inhabit this new temporal horizon – we have information that takes us back to the proposed beginning of the universe, and into the heart of the quark and into the cosmic hologram. The human horizon of information now spans billions of years. Such new perspectives are opening up our external view of material reality. The tools that are assisting us in this are primarily technological. In this regard, it helps if we understand that technology is another medium through which to operate in material existence. That is, it facilitates another mode of transmission. Just as cultural forms such as religious bodies, social institutions, guilds, sacred buildings and structures, etc, were modes through which the developmental potential operated, so it can be also with our modern technologies (although not in every case, of course!). The emergence of modern technologies – the Internet, artificial intelligence, learning-assisted machines, nano and bio technology, etc – are the tools of our epoch. This is similar to how the pyramids, Stonehenge, stone circles, Gothic cathedrals, and the like, were the technologies of prior epochs. Technology is a medium through which humanity can be assisted along its evolutionary spiral of development. It should not be considered as a replacement for humanity. This again, is an example of how we project ourselves onto external things.
As within, so without – our technologies are representative of a connection and communication we have internally. Our developmental path as human beings is one that works with technology as an expression of our epoch and current stage of material advance. Our technologies, likewise, impact upon our human biological organs of perception. According to spiritual philosopher Idries Shah:
The human being’s organism is producing a new complex of organs in response to such a need. In this age of the transcending of time and space, the complex of organs is concerned with the transcending of time and space. What ordinary people regard as sporadic and occasional bursts of telepathic or prophetic power are…nothing less than the first stirrings of these same organs.
From this above statement we can see that there is a strong correlation between external and internal development. Neither exist in seclusion but form an interrelated whole. The reality is that there are no separate islands, despite the ‘evidence’ of our senses. We may ‘see’ things in life as separate, yet this is a perspective that allows material life to function. Upon a deeper, more intrinsic level, all forms – both living and non-living – are inherently interconnected. We may look like islands above the surface of the water, yet underneath it is the ocean that connects us all. To recognize this is a question of choice.
In everything in our lives, we make a choice; and when it comes down to basics – which it inevitably must do – then we find that we have a fundamental choice between living a life in Love or in Fear. In other words, if we choose Love then we side with compassion, empathy, acceptance, forgiveness, and tolerance. And if we choose to align with the Fear then we give ourselves over to control, manipulation, anxiety, and vulnerability. So where do we choose to place our trust?
If we ascribe to a life lived as islands of separation, then inevitably we learn (or are conditioned) to place our trust externally upon a range of institutions; these may range from religious, work/career, social, educational, etc. And if these institutions fail us then we naturally feel vulnerability, or even betrayed. And yet the truth of the matter is that we betrayed ourselves in the first place by outsourcing our trust. If we live a life relying upon external systems and socio-cultural bonds, then we must be prepared to feel distraught should those external attachments break-down. In such times of great transition, such as now, these social bonds and institutions are themselves very fragile.
It is important that we recognize that much of our everyday life is negotiated between these ‘belongings’ and similar attachments that we pull and wrap around us, like a protective overcoat. At the same time, we need to recognize that our world of ‘belongings’ is changing. We have ‘belonged’ to our nations, our cultures, our religions and belief systems, to our politics, to our teams, our communities, etc. We were largely brought up within our collective belongings that gave us some semblance of a fixed environment. And now many of these collective belongings are breaking apart; they are unravelling. Such belongings and attachments recruited and formed us. Yet they no longer ‘belong’ to us. They were our bubbles that created our islands – they made us believe, and put our trust in, a series of external constructs. This unravelling is revealing that our sense of vulnerability is partly the dismantling of our false assumptions. And further, that our sense of vulnerability is the fear of letting go. It is important to be open to receiving information, even if it is of the disagreeable kind. Yet in being open to such information does not mean we should adopt a position of fear. We have to make a choice of not accepting, or adopting, these external items as ‘belonging’ to us. We need the external world around us, for it is the environment that nourishes us as physical beings. Yet we should be aware and mindful that most of what we see are the jetsam and flotsam that float upon the great waters of life.
In knowing this, we are compelled to seek out those experiences that feel real to us, and which can assist us in developing as human beings. These experiences depend upon us relating with the people who manifest in our lives, for one reason or another. It may not always be pleasant, yet working through our personal relationships is one of the fastest ways to self-development. It is where many of our mental and emotional issues can be worked through and resolved. We are individuals, yet at the same time we are one grand, integral human organism. Somewhere within this organism are the heart-centred experiences that can propel us forward upon our path.
After all, the Real is not the construct but the profound personal experience. To understand love, we need to experience love, not to have it given to us in a text message or written on a Valentine’s card. Likewise, that which we call the ‘self’ is only a construct until we can experience it through the revelation brought about by others. Alone, we are unable to ‘see’ the self – no more than we can see our own faces. And just as we need a mirror in order to view our face, so too do we need other people in life to be as mirrors to reveal the workings of the Self – for no Self is an island. Each Self is a part of the Whole looking back at It-Self.
About the Author
Kingsley L. Dennis is the author of The Phoenix Generation: A New Era of Connection, Compassion, and Consciousness, and The Sacred Revival: Magic, Mind & Meaning in a Technological Age, available at Amazon. Visit him on the web at http://www.kingsleydennis.com/.
 Alan Watts, The Book (Rider, p107)
 Idries Shah, The Sufis, (Octagon Press, p54)